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Robert David (Bob) FitzGerald (1902–1987)

by Stuart Lee

This article was published:

Robert David (Bob) FitzGerald (1902-1987), surveyor and poet, was born on 22 February 1902 at Hunters Hill, Sydney, youngest of three children of Sydney-born parents Robert David FitzGerald, civil engineer, and his wife Ida Le Gay, née Brereton. His paternal grandfather was Robert David FitzGerald and his uncle was John Le Gay Brereton. Bob was educated at Sydney Grammar School and the University of Sydney, where he studied science for two years and wrote poetry for the literary journal Hermes. He decided to train as a surveyor and was licensed in 1925.

In 1926 FitzGerald began private practice in Sydney. He married Marjorie Claire Harris, an assistant-librarian, on 11 March 1931 at All Saints’ Church of England, Hunters Hill. When his business foundered in the Depression, he obtained employment as a surveyor (1931-36) with the Native Lands Commission, Fiji. On his return to Sydney he worked at Katoomba and then with the Ryde and Manly municipal councils. In 1940 he joined the property and survey branch of the Commonwealth Department of Interior. He settled with his family at Hunters Hill. Elected a fellow (1959) of the Institution of Surveyors, Australia, he contributed mainly in the geodesic and cadastral fields. He retired as chief Commonwealth surveyor for New South Wales in 1966.

The Greater Apollo: Seven Metaphysical Songs (1927) was privately published by FitzGerald, and thereafter he produced eight more volumes of poetry, four collections of selected verse, a book of literary criticism and another of essays. He attributed his productivity to the influence of Norman Lindsay’s attitude towards art as a conscious effort to produce. In 1938 FitzGerald came to wider notice when `Essay on Memory’ won the sesquicentenary poetry prize, judged by Henry Mackenzie Green. Moonlight Acre (1938) was awarded the gold medal of the Australian Literature Society for the best book by an Australian author published that year. He won the Grace Leven prize for poetry three times, for Between Two Tides (1952), The Wind at Your Door (1959) and Southmost Twelve (1962). In 1965 FitzGerald shared with A. D. Hope the Britannica Australia award for literature and in 1974 he won the Poetry Society of America’s Frost medal.

FitzGerald had lectured on poetry at the universities of Melbourne and Queensland, and, in 1963 on a Fulbright scholarship, at the University of Texas. He saw the poet as the inheritor and preserver of a long tradition of craftsmanship, constantly evolving as its acknowledged masters adapted to change. Thus his own lean, metrical and rhymed verse conformed to the rhythm of everyday conversation. It also gave the impression of plain speech heightened to achieve moments of delight, surprise and emotional or imaginative impact. As FitzGerald expressed it in `Diction and the Time Lag’ (Southerly, 1971): `[Poetry is] largely that extra vividness of imagination or extra emotional intensity given to thought or meaning by the subtlety and congruity of the choice of words’. Further, believing that poetry dealt with `tangibles and actualities’, he eschewed `nouns abstract’ for `nouns concrete’—see The Elements of Poetry (1963)—and for his imagery drew on familiar everyday experience.

Yet FitzGerald’s reputation had been established by a series of long, speculative, metaphysical explorations of big themes such as beauty (`The Hidden Bole’), creation (`The Face of the Waters’), time (`Essay on Memory’), history (`Heemskerck Shoals’) and ancestry (`The Wind at Your Door’). According to Julian Croft the first two were `among the most significant poems’ written in twentieth-century Australia. Like W. B. Yeats, whom he admired, FitzGerald was to write some of his finer poems late in life: shorter, more direct and, occasionally, lyrical pieces, such as `Tribute’, `Edge’ and `The Tempered Chill’.

Largish and gregarious, with a loud laugh, FitzGerald had a serious turn of mind but was an entertaining companion. Literary friends recall him as a forgiving, generous-minded man who enjoyed (and frequently spoke at) literary gatherings. He was forthright in expressing his opinions—for example, his opposition to the war in Vietnam, and to what he saw as fads in poetry, as in `Just Once’:

And, one final curse:
Hell take freak poetries; I like good verse.

He was appointed OBE in 1951 and AM in 1982. The University of Melbourne conferred on him an honorary Litt.D. in 1985. Survived by his wife and their son and three daughters, he died on 25 May 1987 at his son’s home at Glen Innes, New South Wales, and was cremated. His portrait, painted by Norman Lindsay, is held in the National Library of Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • V. Buckley, Essays in Poetry (1957)
  • A. Grove Day, Robert D. FitzGerald (1974)
  • G. A. Wilkes, R. D. FitzGerald (1981)
  • J. Croft (ed), Robert D. FitzGerald (1987)
  • Australian Surveyor, vol 19, no 4, 1962, p 243, vol 33, no 7, 1987, p 663
  • Southerly, vol 26, no 1, 1966, p 3, vol 27, no 4, 1967, pp 233, 243, vol 29, no 4, 1969, p 288, vol 47, no 3, 1987, p 235.

Citation details

Stuart Lee, 'FitzGerald, Robert David (Bob) (1902–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 25 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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